Color has been used for thousands of years to evoke emotion, convey meaning, and inspire thought, from ancient Egyptian wall paintings to contemporary graffiti art on an overpass bridge. During a fleeting active period in the 20th century, however, one artist re-imagined the meaning behind one particular color: blue.
Renowned French artist Yves Klein, founder of the Nouveau Réalisme movement, was known for producing conceptual art using collage, performance, and abstract painting, and was often described as the European counterpart to Pop Art. Above all accolades and achievements, Klein ultimately became famous for developing a vivid, intense shade of blue. For Klein, this blue held significant meaning, representing his spirituality and religious upbringing, the essence of natural elements like water and sky, and the vast expanse of the universe.
While Klein’s blue has been proprietary and perceived as exclusive for decades, it inspires the work of interior designers, artists and other creatives to this day. From high-end paints to home decor, Klein’s vision for the color blue has become a true legacy.
Yves Klein Biography
Yves Klein was born April 28, 1928 in Nice, France. His mother, Marie Raymond, was a prominent figure in the Art Informel movement, a period in France during the 1940s and 1950s that involved abstract, gestural techniques. His father, Fred Klein, painted landscapes in Post-Impressionist style. Although Klein was raised by two artists, he himself received no formal training in his youth.
Klein began his studies in 1942 at the École Nationale de la Marine Marchande and the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales (now the Institut National des Language), where he befriended young poet Claude Pascal and sculptor Arman Fernandez. The artists shared many common interests including jazz music, literature, religion, and judo, which Klein studied and eventually mastered.
In Klein’s own account, the three creative minds once sat on a beach and “divided” the universe among them. Arman chose the physical world, Claude chose language and the spoken word, and Yves chose space. This casual conversation between friends sparked Klein’s fascination with space, infinity, and abstraction that would shape his career and lead to his fame later in life.
Before creating his famous blue hue, Klein was known to use a multitude of colors in his work. In a 1956 solo exhibition in Paris titled Yves: Propositions Monochromes, the artist debuted monochromes using three colors: pink, blue, and gold. He connected these colors to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, saying, “Fire is blue, gold and pink, the bases of my monochrome paintings. I see it as a universal principle for the explanation of the world.” Audiences expressed disappointment with Klein’s work, and he in turn decided to directly pursue monochromatic work by focusing on one shade: blue.
Shortly after his Paris debut, he developed the first version of what would become his iconic hue in 1956. Four years later, with the help of Parisian art supplier and chemist Edouard Adam, Klein developed the shade and registered (but never patented) the paint formula under the name International Klein Blue (IKB).
The introduction of IKB marked the beginning of a shift in Klein’s work, aptly known as the Blue Period, which featured nearly 200 blue monochrome paintings. He did not name these works, but his widow, Rotraut Klein-Moquay, assigned a number to each after his death. While most of IKB pieces exist in private collections today, there are many examples in institutions around the world, including London’s Tate Modern and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
The Significance of International Klein Blue (IKB)
Klein’s inspiration for his famous blue likely stemmed from several key moments and experiences from his past. For one, his pursuit of monochromatic work reflects his fascination with infinince, as he perceived the monochrome to be an infinite expression of color on canvas. Klein saw these monochromes as representations of life and immortality, declaring them to be an “open window to freedom, as the possibility of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color.”
Klein’s blue also originated from his early travels to Italy, where he experienced the rich blues showcased in frescoes on the walls of the Saint Francis Basilica. As a Catholic, Klein saw religious significance in blue, which was traditionally used to depict the robes of the Virgin Mary in Renaissance paintings.
For the artist, blue depicted the undeniable vastness of space, expressing that “blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colors are not.”
How Yves Klein Used Blue Over Time
The uniqueness of International Klein Blue is found in its manufacturing. To achieve his signature pigment, pure, dry ultramarine pigment is suspended in clear synthetic resin and other solvents like petroleum. The key to the vibrancy of this shade lay in the colorless carrier, which does not dull individual pigment particles, but leaves them with their original vivid hue. Today, the pigment has been recreated in French paint manufacturer Ressource’s International Klein Blue.
Klein utilized the versatility of the IKB pigment, which could be applied with a brush, spray, roller, and even placed directly onto canvas. The artist began to use the IKB shade with a series of monochromes in 1956; each was produced using paint rollers that could more evenly spread the IKB pigment and resin combination onto a cotton surface.
In 1960, Klein began a new series called the Anthropométries, inspired by his judo training and the imprint left on the mat after a judo fighter fell. The first work in this series featured a performance at the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris, France. There, Klein directed nude female models to cover themselves in IKB pigment and press their bodies against gallery walls and canvasses, resulting in a work that was both performative and visual.
Klein went on to create additional works in his Anthropométries series, continuing to use nude models as “living paint brushes.” He described the impressions the models created on canvas as “the most concentrated expression of vital energy imaginable.” Klein believed that the models’ impressions represented the “health that brings humans into being,” and that their presence in the work “transcend[ed] personal presence.”
The Anthropométries series also marked a significant change in Klein’s interaction with his artwork. Wishing to detach himself from the art, Klein once said, “I personally would never attempt to smear paint over my own body and become a living brush; on the contrary, I would rather put on my tuxedo and wear white gloves. I would not even think of dirtying my hands with paint. Detached and distant, the work of art must complete itself before my eyes and under my command.”
In some of his later work, Klein became fascinated with the natural world, incorporating elements like fire, water, sea sponges, and gravel into each piece. He began to diverge from painting on canvas and experimented with more three-dimensional representations of infinity through sculpture. He created nearly 200 different works of art in his signature monochromatic hue before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1962.
11 Works Featuring Yves Klein Blue
While Klein created hundreds of pieces in his short career, there are those that epitomize his artistic approach. Below are some of his most famous works, some of which are currently on view in museums across Europe and North America.
1. Blue Earth (1957)
In 1957, Klein famously stated, “The world is blue.” To mark the occasion, he created a sculptural work of a globe covered in IKB pigment. Four years later, Lieutenant Yuri A. Gagarin, a pilot and cosmonaut, became the first human to leave Earth’s atmosphere, orbiting around the planet briefly before landing safely on solid ground. While in orbit he reported, “The earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.” After this declaration appeared in the news, Klein publicly declared that he had saturated the world with IKB, which he believed contributed to Gagarin’s statement. La Terre Bleue was conceived in 1957 and cast in 1990 as an edition of 300.
2. Untitled (SE 288), (1958)
Klein often used natural elements in his work as both inspiration and subject matter. In Untitled (SE288), the piece features naturally-derived coral covered in IKB pigment and synthetic resin. In one of his writings Klein reported, “while working on my paintings in my studio, I sometimes used sponges. Evidently, they very quickly turned blue! One day I perceived the beauty of blue in the sponge; this working tool all of a sudden became a primary medium for me. The sponge has that extraordinary capacity to absorb and become impregnated with whatever fluid, which was naturally very seductive to me.” Untitled (SE288) represents one of Klein’s first explorations with the use of natural sponge in his work.
3. Blue Sponge Relief – RE 51 (1959)
Klein’s Relief Eponge Bleu uses sea sponge and pebbles on canvas to create a naturalistic scene. The canvas is signed and dated on the back, reading “Yves Klein 59” in the artist’s handwriting. First introduced in 1959 at a show at Galerie Iris Clert entitled “Forest of Sponges,” the work was first sold to Lucio Fontana, an Italian artist and leader of abstractionism. Decades later, it was sold by Sotheby’s for $16,965,000 in 2014.
4. SE 161 (1959)
Many of Klein’s sculptural works reference earthly elements like rock, gravel, fire, and water, which is reflective of the artist’s early interest in nature. Each uses IKB to represent the infinince of cosmological space intertwined with the physicality of the natural world. SE 161 combines natural stone, metal wiring, and natural sponge saturated in IKB pigment to illustrate his hue’s dominance over natural elements. The sculpture sold for $1,314,500 in a Phillips de Pury auction in November 2010.
5. The Big Blue Anthropometry – ANT 105 (1960)
Klein publicly debuted his Anthropometry series with The Big Blue Anthropometry, a performance involving nude female models painted in IKB pigment. In the piece, the models painted their own bodies with IKB paint and pressed themselves against the canvas, leaving abstract imprints behind. In conjunction, a small orchestra performed Klein’s “Monotone Symphony,” a musical arrangement he composed that consisted of one continuous note followed by silence. The piece is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
6. Anthropometry of the Blue Period – ANT 82 (1960)
Featuring the imprints of five nude models, this piece is a perfect example of Klein’s vision for the Anthropometry series. Using the women as “living brushes,” Klein detached himself from his work saying, “In this way, I stayed clean. I no longer dirtied myself with color, not even the tips of my fingers.”
7. The Buffalo – ANT 93 (1961)
Executed between 1960 and 1961, ANT 93 or “Le Buffle” (The Buffalo) is another iconic example from Yves Klein’s Anthropometry series. The massive painting, which measures 110 x 70 inches, can be seen in photographs hanging on the wall in the sitting room of the artist’s home. The painting sold for $12,402,500 at auction in 2010 by Christie’s.
8. Table Bleu Klein ® (1961)
The year before his death, Klein experimented with different mediums to convey the brilliance of his blue. He made two prototypes of a cocktail table with pigment sprinkled into wooden tops; one in pink, and one in blue. While he never finished the tables with protective glass, his widow would go on to produce the patented tables with great success.
Today, an authorized Yves Klein table comes in three materials commonly utilized by the artist during the course of his career: IKB pigment, rose pigment, or gold leaf. A Table Bleue uses 44 pounds of IKB pigment and because only 40–60 are authorized for production each year, a new table sells for $21,000.
9. Blue Venus (1961)
This piece is comprised of a plaster mold of the female form covered in IKB paint. These human figures were some of the last in Klein’s exploration of sculpture. Though it is not currently on view, the sculpture is part of the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
10. IKB 191 (1962)
IKB 191 was completed shortly before the artist’s death. As one of his many monochromes, the painting demonstrates the brilliance of his ultramarine shade. Measuring 65.5 x 49 cm., the painting was sold at auction for $947,600 in 2005 at Christie’s New York.
11. One Minute Blue Fire Painting – M41 (1962)
Towards the end of his career, Klein gained access to a French laboratory with flame propagation equipment that inspired the artist to find new ways to manipulate the IKB pigment. Klein applied water to cardboard, then aimed Bunsen burners and flame throwers at the surface. The unique effect the flame created even inspired Klein to use the technique in his Anthropometry series, claiming “the mark of fire will frame the curves of life.” The canvas is part of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.
How Yves Klein Created a Lasting Legacy
Yves Klein created a strong presence through the use of his signature blue which helped shape and solidify his identity as an artist. These methods helped Klein build a name and brand for himself that would last long after his lifetime.
While Klein is certainly not the first to have used blue in his work, his oeuvre has become known around the world as a beautiful interpretation of the hue. Focusing his energy on this singular IKB shade, Klein created a lasting legacy for himself.
Today, Klein’s work resides in both private collections and public institutions around the world. From Berlin to New York, Klein achieved his dream of painting the world blue and ignited a fascination with abstract and minimalist principles. Today, Yves Klein is an inspiration for focusing on our passion and pursuing it to the end.